BARDO POND: BUFO ALVARIUS, AMEN 29:15 (1995)
1) Adhesive; 2) Back Porch; 3) On A Side Street; 4) Capillary River; 5) No Time To Waste; 6) Absence; 7) Vent; 8) Amen.
Philadelphia-based Bardo Pond do not write songs — they create ambience. That is the first thing one needs to understand and acknowledge about them. Naturally, they are way, way far from the first band to use loud rock instrumentation to create ambience. Before them, there was stoner rock, and then there was shoegazing, and then there were Sonic Youth, and then there was Metal Machine Music, and then there was Faust, and then, and then... and then along came Jones, and the rest is never-ending history. Still, they did take noise-rock in a direction all their own, at least, as long as you are willing to accept that a Bardo Pond album has to be over seventy minutes long to be a true Bardo Pond album — and include no more than three or four well-discernible rhythmic phrases over the course of its duration.
Bufo Alvarius, the band's debut, satisfies these conditions. It is named after the psychoactive Colorado River toad (the second part of the title simply refers to the running length of the last track), and it does sound like whoever recorded it had previously spent some time cruising on 5-Me-O-DMT. Chief inhalers include brothers John and Michael Gibbons on space rock guitars (one of them is usually monotonously droning away on a riff, while the other one weaves sonic rings around); Clint Takeda on equally stoned bass; drummer Joe Culver, who, due to the songs' lethargic tempos, is the band's weakest link by definition; and Isobel Sollenberger on highly occasional flute and slightly more frequent vocals (although her «singing» is, in reality, at best just a modest sound effect, particularly since she, too, generally sounds stoned out of her mind).
All of this is very straightforward — you want psychedelia? you get its very essence, in pure molecular form, no capsules or sweetening shit — and it is not so much «not for everyone» as it is «not for any time»: Bufo Alvarius does not work well as background music (because whatever you are doing to the sounds of it, you run a heavy risk of doing it backwards in a short time), nor, obviously, does it work if you are simply planning to «have a good time». However, it has the potential to carry you away into outer space if you feel like... well, like taking a trip that does not require any effort on your part whatsoever (like headbanging to Hawkwind's brand of space rock, for instance).
ʽAmenʼ, the huge half-hour drone that closes the album, is where they take this idea to its extreme. The actual length need not bother, since it can be turned off at any time (and the remainder of the album would still constitute a full-length LP, so it is possible to think of it as one enormous bonus track) — but if it happens to entrance you over the first five or six minutes, then the next twenty-four may well turn out to be blissful. The lead guitar weaves a distorted, buzzing / ringing / wah-wah-ing raga pattern throughout, while the rhythm guitar plays an echoey chiming pattern, and it is clearly the express purpose of the two to place you under hypnosis; worked in my case — at the very least, I got disfocused enough so as to forget where exactly it was that the lead guitar player started going in circles.
The «shorter» compositions are bookmarked by two not particularly effective slabs of grumbly noise-rock (ʽAdhesiveʼ and ʽVentʼ), but in between them there are actually some bits of stylistic variety — from the deep, heavy blues-riffage of ʽBack Porchʼ (which could have just as well be an influence on The Black Keys) to the retro-metal of ʽAbsenceʼ (which has the most memorable and almost Sabbath-worthy riff on the entire album) and the almost swamp-rock sound of ʽNo Time To Wasteʼ, with its distorted, sleazy slide guitar reminiscent of Led Zeppelin circa Physical Graffiti. (Not reminiscent enough to drag you out of the trance, though — once these guys place you into a fixed state, there is no going back, and even if ʽNo Time To Wasteʼ is just a tad faster than the rest of them, it hardly feels that way when the song remains in its context).
Overall, I believe I should have hated this album for the paucity of ideas and the bluntness of approach — but it must have gotten to me through the sheer size of it. Remember, kids: one track like this on an album otherwise filled with catchy pop-rock is boring filler — a whole album of such tracks is a mind-melting experience. Probably the best thing about it is that the Gibbonses have such tasty combinations of guitar tones — such as a «mooing» distorted acid metal in one channel, and a high-pitched «astral» psycho siren in another: a combination that goes easier on my ears than many others (for instance, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and other newer bands prefer a combination of «buzz-noise» and «jangle» that is not nearly as effective on the senses unless it is shaped into a really strong melodic pattern).
On the other hand, it is also clear why Bardo Pond never transcended their cult status — they really have no interest in adhering to strict self-discipline. Even the five-minute «songs» on here are mood pieces and nothing more. This has its formal pluses — not only does this approach allow you to record new material at extra speed, but it also helps you gain an «uncompromising» reputation and a small, but steady, ultra-loyal following. Its formal minuses are too obvious to be even worth mentioning — but not sufficient to prevent me from an enthusiastic thumbs up, provided the word «enthusiastic» is compatible with this stuff in the first place: an «intoxicated» thumbs up might be a better way of putting it. Bring on the mushrooms — and don't forget the Colorado River toad, of course.
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